Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kilpeck, Herefordshire

Virtuoso carvings

Last week I went to Herefordshire to show some friends one of my favourite buildings, the parish church at Kilpeck. It rained, and the local countryside, already sodden, took on a dark beauty all its own, the contrast between wet green grass and red soil and stone as powerful as ever. The light wasn’t ideal for photography, though, so the pictures are from an earlier trip.

The church of Saints Mary and David, Kilpeck, was built in the 12th century, probably the 1130s, and survives intact with very few later alterations. It is the best place to go to look at the sculpture of the extraordinary ‘Herefordshire school’, whose work is scattered through many Norman churches in the county and in parts of neighbouring Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, but is seen in its most concentrated form in Kilpeck’s small church, which is both well preserved and stunningly decorated.

The 12th-century Herefordshire sculptors produced carvings not only of saints and priests, but also of animals, monsters, and grotesques. Their work is capable of both stylish simplicity and complex detail, high seriousness and earthy humour, and it encompasses huge fonts, Kilpeck’s elaborate doorway, carved shafts and panels, and small, often humorous corbels. The photographs here show part of the doorway and a few of the corbels, which depict a range of subjects from real animals and musicians to mythical beasts.

Scholars have detected Celtic, French, Spanish, and Scandinavian influences in the Herefordshire carvings. The Scandinavian element may come via the Normans’ Viking heritage, the western French and Spanish from a trip made by local pilgrims through France to Compostela. The synthesis, though, carved in the red sandstone so typical of the area, is pure Herefordshire.

If I get the chance to return to Kilpeck in better weather I will post more photographs of this building. But meanwhile, most of the sculptures on the church can be seen here.

Kilpeck, a selection of corbels

Kilpeck, south doorway, drawing by G R Lewis, 1840


Thud said...

What would I give for just half an hour watching these unknown artists at work?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Absolutely. I think in terms of tools and techniques, it would be very similar to watching the highly skilled masons at one of the cathedrals today. But it's always interesting to watch craftsmen and artists of this calibre as every person has their own way of approaching the work. And what a revelation it would be to see how these fantastic shapes and forms evolved, where the carvers got their ideas form, how their apprentices learned from them, etc, etc, etc.

David Gouldstone said...

This is one of my favourite churches too. (And a superb website about Romanesque sculpture, which I hadn't come across before, so special thanks for that.) Arguably the most famous of the Kilpeck carvings is of course the sheela na gig; sadly, we'll never know the intention of the carver - or perhaps not so sadly, since we can all have great fun speculating.

Kilpeck is just a few miles from Abbey Dore, which must be a very strong candidate for my absolutely favourite church.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you. I agree that Abbey Dore is a stunning church, both for its medieval fabric and remarkable 17th-century furnishings and glass.

Meanwhile, I think I might soon have to supplement my post about Kilpeck with something about the sheela na gig.

Thud said...

By default I inherited a set of tools from a master mason who worked on Liverpool anglican and New Yorks ST. Patricks cathedrals....I'm almost afraid to use them.